Imaginary Baseball in the Rockies: Ken Burns, Lewis and Clark, and the Nez Percé

This article was written by Thomas L. Altherr

This article was published in Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles

This article was originally published in “Above the Fruited Plain,” the 2003 SABR convention journal.


In the second part of his 1997 PBS video, Lewis & Clark, American documentarian extraordinaire Ken Burns had his narrator declare that on June 8, 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and other members of the Corps of Discovery played a game of bat and ball with the Nez Percé indigenous peoples in what is now Idaho. The soundtrack ran as follows: “The men ran foot races with the Indians and taught them a new stick and ball game called base.”1

Ah, Kenny, would that it were so! We baseball historians, who are always on the lookout for examples of pre-Abner Doubleday Myth, pre-1839 baseball and baseball-type games, could have celebrated mightily that these games so associated with the East went West so rapidly.2 What a pity! There were already the famous “nine young men from Kentucky” along on the journey— a ready-made nine, if ever there was one! Would their boss back in Washington, Thomas Jefferson, have approved? He had written in 1785, “Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.”3 What position would Sackagawea have played? Center scout? Oh, to be able to remark as well that the game crossed a racial divide and indigenous people took to the game so early.

But, alas, even the the quickest consultation of the primary sources reveal that Lewis and Clark et al. did not play a baseball- type game. They played a game called “prisoner’s base,” a long- time children’s game that much more resembled hide-and-seek than baseball. Both Lewis and Clark in their respective journals are clear about what recreation they enjoyed that day. Here is the actual excerpt from Meriwether Lewis:

Sunday, June 8th, 1806

Drewyer returned this morning from the chase without having killed anythingseveral foot rarces [sic] were run this evening between the indians and our men. the indians are very active; one of them proved as fleet as [our best runner] Drewer and R. Fields, our swiftest runners. When the racing was over the men divided themselves into parties and played prison base, by way of exercise which we wish the men to take previously to entering the mountain; in short those who are not hunters have had so little to do that they are getting rather lazy and slothfull . . . . after dark we had the violin played and danced for the amusement of ourselves and the indians.4

William Clark’s entry was somewhat less detailed, but it clearly paralleled Lewis’s:

Drewyer returned this morning from the chase without killing any thing … in the evening. Several foot races were run by the men of our party and the Indians; after which our party divided and played at prisoners base until night. after dark the fiddle was played and the party amused themselves in dancing.5

Sergeant John Ordway, in his journal entry for the same day, noted the same activities: “Our party exercised themselves run- ning and playing games called base.”6 The next day the assembly continued their frolicking. As Lewis noted about his group on June 9th: “[T]hey have every thing in readiness for a move, and notwithstanding the want of provision have been amusing themselves very merrily today in running footraces pitching quites [quoits], prison basse &c.”7 Clark echoed him in his own journal entry: “… amuse themselves by pitching quates [quoits], Prisoners bast running races &c.”8

None of the other Corps of Discovery journals cover this day or time period or discuss the recreational events of these days. Unless Ken Burns and his research staff have uncovered some source hitherto unknown to historians, the “sad” truth is that the groups played prisoner’s base.

Accounts of medieval and early modern sport occasionally refer to or describe prisoner’s base. Although there is a bit of fuzziness in some of the descriptions, it is clear that the game mixed early elements of hide-and-seek and Capture the Flag. None of the accounts mentioned balls, bats, sticks, or baseball-type bases. One description should suffice, this one from historian Sally Wilkins:

In Europe, base, or prisoner’s base, was a game played by both girls and boys. Players divided into teams and defined the playing area—a street, field, or courtyard. Each team had a tree, pillar, or rock designated as their “base” and another as their “prison.” The teams lined up, linking hands, each chain with one player touching the base. One by one the players at the ends of the chain let go and chased each other. If one caught the other, the captive was brought to the prison, and soon chains of players were strung from each prison. Now the runners leaving their bases would try not only to capture new prisoners but also to liberate their teammates by touching the chain of prisoners. Once freed, prisoners ran back to their own bases, where they were safe until they set off again.9

Elijah Harry Criswell pointed out in his 1936 dissertation on Lewis and Clark’s linguistic influences that Clark used a newer version of the term (“prisoner’s base”) and Lewis stuck with the older term (“prison base”).10 But clearly prison base, or prisoner’s base, was not a baseball-type game. The lesson here for baseball historians is that whenever we encounter an early reference to base, such as George Ewing’s celebrated diary entry at Valley Forge in 1778, we have to be cautious assuming, without corroborating evidence, whether or not the game was baseball or prisoner’s base.



  1. Lewis & Clark, A Film by Ken Burns (New York: Florentine Films, 1997), part II.
  2. See my research in Thomas L. Altherr, “’A Place Level Enough to Play Ball’: Baseball and Baseball-Type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic,” NINE, v. 8, n. 2 (Spring 2000), 15-49.
  3. Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 19, 1785, in Julian Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 23 vols. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1953), v. 8, 407.
  4. Meriwether Lewis, June 8, 1806, reprinted in Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition March 23-June 9, 1806 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 346-347.
  5. William Clark, June 8, 1806, reprinted in Moulton, , The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition March 23-June 9, 1806, 347.
  6. John Ordway, June 8, 1806, reprinted in Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition: The Journals of John Ordway, May 14, 1804- September 23, 1806, and Charles Floyd. May 14-August 18, 1804 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 320; although Ordway simply referred to the games as base, there’s not enough evidence here to contradict Lewis and Clark’s more specific description of the game as prisoner’s base.
  7. Meriwether Lewis, June 9, 1806, reprinted in Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition March 23-June 9, 1806, 349.
  8. William Clark, June 9, 1806, reprinted in Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition March 23-June 9, 1806, 349.
  9. Sally Wilkins, Sports and Games of Medieval Cultures (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002), 122-123.
  10. Elijah Harry Criswell, Lewis and Clark: Linguistic Pioneers, The University of Missouri Studies, v. 15, n. 2 (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri, 1940), 68.